Stephen Bulger Q + A

April 29, 2019Q + A

The owner of the eponymous Stephen Bulger Gallery is also the founder of the photography festival CONTACT which is held each May in Toronto. Bulger frequently leads Partners in Art member educations and gallery tours. The next one on May 2 includes a visit with exhibiting artist Sarah Anne Johnson.

When did you first open your gallery?

We opened on March 23, 1995 at 700 Queen West, a 1200 sq. ft. retail space across the street from Dufflet. After nine years there we moved west of Ossington into a project conceived by Hussain Amarshi and Atom Egoyan. They had scaled back their plan to open a dual cinema space and restaurant and thought it would be a good idea to share the ground floor with a gallery. I took over half of the ground-floor space but was allowed access to their single cinema during the day. After about two years I took over the operation of CAMERA Bar. We were there for about 14 years.

What do you miss most about your old Queen location? What do you love about your new location on Dundas Street West?

I miss the theatre. I enjoyed using it with my family and friends, but it remained a distraction to keep active programing for it, so I certainly do not miss running it. I like how versatile the new gallery is, and how we can accommodate many different activities simultaneously, and spontaneously.

Bulger’s previous gallery had a movie theatre. The current space is versatile and can accommodate a variety of activities and events.

How did your career in art begin?

My mother enjoyed painting, but it was an activity that was put on hold until the youngest of five kids was off to school. I liked using cameras as a kid, and as a teenager had a darkroom in our basement. I always enjoyed collecting stuff and liked to rearrange my room while procrastinating over school assignments. I tried making photographs like my mom was trying to paint – striving to make something that would grace the wall of a gallery, or someone’s home. Eventually I studied it at Ryerson, where I organized student exhibitions and helped them open a gallery at 80 Spadina. After volunteering there, I made the shift from a maker to a curator/promoter.

Is there an artist that you like that would surprise people?

I find people are surprised to hear that I like things other than photographs! I like the idea of specialization in terms of a work practice, but not in terms of personal tastes. I appreciate excellence in all media.

What is the most unique part of your personal photography collection?

My wife, Catherine Lash, and I collect authentic wedding photographs. Initially it was to fulfill a gallery need – to have a box of photographs that were examples of the many different types of photographic prints, from Daguerreotypes to digital. It is easier showing people actual samples than it is trying to describe different print characteristics. At the time, Catherine was a leading wedding photographer, so we thought the print collection would be more interesting if they were all wedding photographs. We currently have close to 600, and believe that after another 100-200 we’d have a fuller representation of what the collection can offer, which is an illustrated history of wedding ceremonies and photographic practice over a 170 year period.

What have been your top three art experiences?

Making a few photographs that gave other people pleasure. Holding the actual daguerreotype that was presented to the Academy of Arts and Sciences to prove the existence of its invention. Visiting the Rothko Chapel.

Do you attend art fairs, and if so, what is your favourite?

Yes. As a visitor Maastricht. As an exhibitor, I like the look of Paris Photo, but I prefer the ease of doing business at the AIPAD NY show.

One of Bulger’s favourite art fairs as a visitor is Maastricht. Photo: Loraine Bodewes

How do you begin your day and what are your habits?

Usually the first couple of hours is spent trying to get caught up on emails. I get 100-150 on many days, so it has become something of a chore.

Who would you want to create/photograph your portrait?

I wish I was old enough to have had my portrait made by John Vanderpant.

What do you do if you need inspiration?

I look at a photograph.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I am lucky to have a great family life.

What is your greatest fear?

Certain types of height.

What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

Think carefully about what you want to photograph, and how you choose to photograph it. What can you say about a subject close to your heart that is revelatory, and considers universal themes?

How did you hear about PIA?

Initially Partners in Art identified as one of the groups that would routinely visit galleries, and make those events a fuller educational experience. Since that time it has grown in ranks, and significance, offering artists with funding to create projects that engage the public at large, while remaining of interest to discerning viewers.